Cross Curiosity (Men)

Graphic Assistance via John Cusick and John Cusick

Here at The Stride Report, we were thrilled to have a collegiate cross country season this fall, even if it was limited in a variety of ways. However, despite having a handful of races and seeing many top teams toe the line, there were plenty of programs who did not get to race (at least not officially). As a result, we were left wanting more.

Below, we opted to list a few teams that we are the most excited to see during the upcoming winter cross county season (should it go on as expected). Let's dive right into it...

Portland Pilots

Portland is a team that has undergone a massive makeover since 2019 and it will be fascinating to see how all of their new pieces fit together this winter. With an influx of transfers set to replace key scorers who graduated, the top seven will look drastically different, but the Pilots should still be able to compete at a high level.

Evert Silva is set to return this year and could end up becoming the key low-stick that we know he can be. The Portland veteran boasts All-American potential and has made encouraging progress in his fitness over the last few years, both in cross country and track. He'll be joined by fellow returners Reuben Kiprono and Riley Osen who should continue to be solid contributors given their experience.

The Pilots will also have Justin Hazell who has run 7:59 for 3000 meters during the indoor track season as well as Bradley Peloquin, another talented 3k runner who has been trending in the right direction as of late.

However, our eyes are on the transfer trio of Stan Niesten, Jacob Klemz and Zak Kirk. These three will all be major X-factors for the Pilots as they look to once again finish in the top-10 at the NCAA Championships.

Niesten looks like the most talented of the bunch, but we have not seen him run in an NCAA race yet. He has run 13:35 for 5000 meters and 29:03 for 10,000 meters, so he should be a true front-runner for Portland. Even so, it is hard to gauge where he could finish at the national meet until we see him compete this winter.

Likewise, it will be fascinating to see how Klemz adjusts to the D1 level after being a multi-time All-American in Division Two. He has run 13:52 for 5000 meters and might play a bigger role for the Pilots than some might expect. Watch out for him as he could be a game-changer for this team.

How these newcomers adjust to the Division One level will likely determine how much of Portland's upside we actually get to see. Of course, based on coach Rob Conner’s track record, it wouldn't be surprising to see each of these men make a seamless transition.

Stanford Cardinal

After a mass exodus of graduates and transfers, it is truthfully hard to remember who still remains in Palo Alto. Still, when you look at Stanford's roster, there is plenty of underrated talent.

After being stuck behind top runners like Grant Fisher, Alex Ostberg, Steven Fahy and Thomas Ratcliffe, many Cardinal runners will now get more chances to contribute this winter. For us as spectators, we will almost surely get a better idea of just how talented some of their athletes are as we will (hopefully) get to see them race more frequently.

Out of last year’s top four, the only returner is Alek Parsons. One of the most experienced and nationally-accomplished collegiate cross country runners in the NCAA, Parsons will be a strong front-runner who helps his younger teammates transition into varsity roles.

Guys like Clayton Mendez, Meika Beaudoin-Rousseau, Michael Vernau, Connor Lane, Callum Bolger and D.J. Principe all have the potential to be big-time scorers for the Cardinal this season. Truthfully, many of these men have already emerged as varsity runners for Stanford at one point or another.

If Stanford can get two or three of those guys in top form for the winter cross country season, then the Cardinal may not fall too far off from their 2019 result.

However, another avenue towards a top-10 finish at the NCAA Championships is by embracing their youth movement and hoping that they can make an instant impact. We are incredibly eager to see guys like Cole Sprout, Devin Hart, Liam Anderson, Charles Hicks, Evan Burke, Ryan Oosting and Thomas Boyden hit the grass for Stanford for the first time.

Many of these youngsters have run incredibly well at the collegiate level so far and we have already seen just how good Sprout and Boyden were at the high school level.

We don't exactly view the men from Palo Alto as podium contenders this year, but the potential development of their exciting young core could set them up for a very promising future. But until then, we'll be scratching our heads, wondering what this team will bring to the table in 2021.

Washington Huskies

The Huskies inspired one of the biggest arguments between Garrett and myself earlier in the year, so naturally, both of us are eager to see how they run in the winter.

Washington is such an interesting program because they are a team that is loaded with talent, has a proven coach and we have not seen them run since March. After such a strong cross country season in 2018, the team struggled a bit in 2019, but I have been anticipating a big improvement from the Huskies this year.

How the winter cross country season affects their comeback campaign is unclear, but I am eager not only to see a return to form from some of their top runners, but also the debuts from their freshmen.

There might not be another team with so much uncertainty permeating throughout their lineup and that ambiguity will only be cleared up by race results.

Will the 2021 versions of Talon Hull and Tibebu Proctor mimic their 2018 performances? Or their 2019 performances? Likewise, will we see a youngsters like Sam Affolder, Sam Tanner, Joe Waskom and Luke Houser live up to their potential on the grass? How will Leo Daschbach and Cruz Culpepper perform (if at all) during their first year in Seattle?

These are just a few of the questions that we have for this Washington team and their season will likely be defined by whatever those respective answers are. Positive responses across the board could make the Huskies a top-10 team, but the opposite could drop them out of our top-20 when it comes to rankings.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Coming off of a heartbreaking end to their 2019 cross country season, the ‘Zags have to be one of the teams most eager to get back to the grass this winter.

After not seeing them race for so long, I am curious if we will see a Weber State-like jump from them. We had Weber State listed at TSR #23 in our preseason rankings and after their performance against a strong (and somewhat limited) BYU team last weekend, it is safe to say that our initial suspicions regarding their projected talent were correct.

So could Gonzaga accomplish the same in 2021?

With everyone returning from last year's regional lineup, it would not be surprising to see the Bulldogs come back much better than last year. James Mwaura is already a top front-runner and Peter Hogan seems to be a very reliable second scorer. Improvements from guys like Cullen McEachern, Jake Perrin and Phillip Fishburn could move Gonzaga from the NCAA bubble to a top-15 team in the country.

Gonzaga also has plenty of freshmen and redshirt freshmen who could surprise us and eventually factor into their varsity lineup. Evan Bates ran 8:18 for 3000 meters last winter and it looks like he could be a surprise member of their top seven in the winter.

With plenty of motivation, the Gonzaga men will be a fun team to watch as they go on their revenge tour. Can they run it back with a nearly-identical lineup to last year and produce a different result? I guess we'll have to wait and see...

Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers have lost two of the best runners in the NCAA in consecutive years with Morgan McDonald graduating in 2019 and Oliver Hoare following right behind him this past spring. Throw in the loss of Ben Eidenschink and this Wisconsin team is set to look dramatically different compared to last year.

The Badgers are an interesting team for me because this is the theoretical beginning of a rebuild for them, but they should still be in contention for a BIG 10 title. Weird times, I know.

Olin Hacker is the top returner from 2019 and has shown flashes of being a big-time low-stick. He was 7th at the BIG 10 Championships and ran 7:52 for 3000 meters during the winter. His development during his senior year is one storyline to watch closely as this team needs to maintain some firepower after so many key departures.

Jackson Sharp and Shuaib Aljabaly are two other top returners who have plenty of potential. This winter will hopefully give us the chance to see them fulfill our high expectations. They have both made very promising development over the last few years, but this is the season where they'll be relied upon more than they ever have been.

While the veterans will certainly be responsible for most of the scoring duties in this lineup, it is actually the freshmen who are the intriguing aspect of this roster.

It will be fascinating to see how quickly rookies like Evan Bishop, Caleb Brown, Oliver Paleen and Bob Liking are able to contribute to this team. Bishop and Brown were two of the best high school cross country runners in the nation last year and are highly experienced when it comes to championship races. If both men are able to acclimate quickly to collegiate competition, then how they will raise the Badgers' ceiling twofold.

Last, but certainly not least, I am looking forward to seeing Jack Meijer on the grass. The Brit has already run 13:47 (5k) during a time trial in September. Despite finishing 76th at Great Lakes Regional Championships last year, I think he could play a big role for the Badgers in 2021.

Although their roster is young, Wisconsin could skip a few steps in the rebuilding process and be top-15 team this winter. After all, good teams are able to rebound from key losses and rebuild towards their past success.

But great teams? Well, great teams reload.

And given the Badgers' history, a reload seems far more likely than a rebuild.